Possible Conflicts Of Interest For Tulsa Judge In Bob Bates Case
TULSA, Oklahoma - By Ziva Branstetter, The Frontier
When Eric Harris was shot by a Tulsa County Sheriff’s reserve deputy in April, he was captured on video selling a gun to an undercover officer before he fled, was tackled and shot.
The district judge presiding over the manslaughter trial for the former reserve deputy who shot Harris never disclosed that he worked as a divorce attorney for the undercover officer captured on that video, an investigation by The Frontier has found.
After The Frontier raised questions about potential conflicts of interest involving District Judge James Caputo in the Robert Bates case, a hearing has been scheduled in the case Friday morning.
In a disclosure he filed in Bates' case, Caputo did not mention his past representation of the witness, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Deputy Lance Ramsey. A video of the shooting, which gained national attention, begins with Ramsey and Harris sitting in a pickup truck discussing the transaction.
Through a clerk, Caputo declined an interview request by The Frontier Tuesday and did not respond to questions emailed to him.
Caputo is presiding over hearings involving Bates, a former Tulsa County Sheriff’s reserve deputy charged in the April 2 shooting of Eric Harris during an undercover gun buy.
Before his election as a district judge in 2010, Caputo worked as an attorney handling divorce and criminal cases.
Records show Caputo represented Ramsey in a divorce case, appearing at multiple hearings in Tulsa District Court between 2000 and 2004. Prosecutors have listed Ramsey as a witness in Bates’ manslaughter case.
Bates, 74, is a friend and former campaign manager for Sheriff Stanley Glanz and served on a drug task force as a volunteer reserve deputy. He is charged with second-degree manslaughter in Harris’ death after reportedly mixing up his Taser and gun.
As the undercover officer who bought a 9mm handgun from Harris, Ramsey would be a key witness in Bates’ trial.
Harris was a convicted felon and fled when he saw deputies moving in to arrest him. The video ends with Harris lying on the ground after he had been shot and saying he can’t breathe.
Caputo is listed as the plaintiff’s attorney in Ramsey’s 1999 divorce case.
The state code of judicial conduct states that “a judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might reasonably consider relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no basis for disqualification.”
Caputo filed a judicial disclosure on April 22 that he worked as a Tulsa County Sheriff’s deputy from 1993 through 1999, except for nearly a year’s break during 1995. He also states that his daughter is a civilian employee with the sheriff’s office and that he has known Glanz for 23 years.
However Caputo did not disclose a his prior work as an attorney for Ramsey, who had already been listed as a witness in the case.
Caputo also failed to disclose that he served as a reserve deputy for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office at the same time as Bates, in 2007 and 2008. In his disclosure, Caputo states that he had no relationship — personal or professional — with Bates.
The state judicial code of conduct requires a judge to recuse from a case “in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
One provision of the judicial code of conduct states that judges should disqualify if they have a relative with an “economic interest in the subject matter” of the proceeding. Caputo’s daughter, Kathryn Caputo was hired in 2013 as a civil clerk for the sheriff’s office and is paid $28,296 annually, as of May.
While the judge has noted that neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys have asked him to recuse, the state’s judicial code of conduct does not require such a request for a recusal to occur.
On Tuesday, a citizens group called We The People Oklahoma issued a statement calling on Caputo to recuse from Bates’ case. The group successfully petitioned to empanel a grand jury, which indicted Glanz on two misdemeanors related to his official conduct.
Caputo's campaign fund has received multiple contributions from attorneys employed by Brewster and DeAngelis, the law firm of Bates' attorney, Clark Brewster.
Records show Friends of James Caputo 2010 received $1,000 campaign contribution from Brewster and DeAngelis and multiple direct contributions from attorneys in Brewster’s firm. Caputo was unopposed for re-election to his seat last year.
The state judicial code says a judge should recuse from a case if “the judge knows or learns … that a party, a party's lawyer, or the law firm of a party's lawyer has within the previous four (4) years made aggregate contributions to the judge's campaign in an amount that a reasonable person would believe could affect the fairness of the judge's consideration of a case involving the party, the party's lawyer or the law firm of the party's lawyer. "
It states that the judge "should consider what the public perception would be as to such contributions affecting the judge's ability to be fair to the parties. Contributions within the limits allowed by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission will not normally require disqualification unless other factors are present.”
Dan Smolen, an attorney representing Harris’ family, issued a statement asking Caputo to step down from hearing the case.
“We have the utmost respect for Judge Caputo and believe him to be a skilled and honorable judge. Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding the Bob Bates case require Judge Caputo to recuse,” the statement says.
District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said earlier this week he has not filed a motion asking Caputo to recuse from the case because the judge has said he can be impartial.
“Judge Caputo has represented in public that he does not feel that he has a conflict. I’m an officer of the court and if I truly felt that the judge would be conflicted I would do it.”
However when contacted by The Frontier Thursday about Caputo's representation of Ramsey, Kunzweiler said he would ask for a hearing over the issue.
Brewster said the question of whether Bates and Caputo had any contact while serving as reserves together and whether the situation could be viewed at least as an apparent conflict was “a fair question.”
As it did with Bates, the sheriff’s office listed some training records missing from Caputo’s reserve file.
As part of a 2009 investigation into whether Bates was shown favoritism at TCSO and had required training, Sgt. Paul Tryon reviewed training files of some reserve deputies. Bates’ complete 287-page internal affairs report contains Tryon’s report to Sgt. Rob Lillard on his findings and Tryon’s notes on what he found.
The notes show that Caputo had only a partial background check on file and no record existed of his written test to become a reserve. It was also unknown whether Caputo completed his required mental health review, called an MMPI, because those reports were kept by the undersheriff, Tryon’s report states.
As a former certified deputy, Caputo would have met many of the requirements already to become a reserve but it is unclear whether he met all requirements.